I love this photo of Debra Rich Gettleman, which was taken by Valley photographer Mark Gluckman and is published with his permission. It shows Debra in a scene from “Strangers in the Bedroom,” one of two, one-act plays by Harold Pinter playing through Sept. 4 at Theatre Artists Institute in North Phoenix.
I love the photo because it’s a visually intriguing portrait (Debra’s character plays a married woman openly carrying on an affair), but also because it suggests something more: two sides of a passionate and complicated personality. The Debra I know.
Debra has been a contributor to our magazine for many years. (The oldest article I could find in our online archives was “Get your grimy hands off my belly!”, which she wrote as she was awaiting the birth of her son Eli, now 6.
Her articles and her blog, “Unmotherly Insights,” consistently rank highest in reader response. But the comments aren’t always positive.
Sometimes Debra’s writing is humorous. But sometimes it has a biting, acerbic tone. She’s opinionated and not afraid to say what she thinks.
Maybe it’s her background in talk radio (she hosted a show in Los Angeles in her pre-motherhood days). Maybe it’s the artist’s penchant for exaggerating reality to make a point. Maybe it’s the microscopic lens she often turns upon herself to analyze (and agonize over) her own motives and methods — and sometimes aims at others.
I have been taken to task by some readers for giving Debra a platform. Most recently, I was criticized for publishing an opinion piece about what she perceives to be an overblown concern about peanut allergies in schools and policies that prohibit non-allergic children from eating foods (like peanut-butter sandwiches) in public places. (We also published a story by Jennifer Schwarz of Paradise Valley, the founder of Food Allergy S-O-S, LLC, who wrote about what it’s like to have severely allergic children who are highly sensitive to even minute exposure to foods like peanuts.)
The August issue had barely hit the mail when I started hearing from Valley parents, including one dad who saw the article and described himself as “honestly so furious I do not know where to begin.”
“I can’t count on two hands the number of times my 6-year-old has been put in danger by people like [Debra] who are too annoyed to know the facts,” he wrote, adding, “I wonder just what type of editorial process your publication works under?”
He wasn’t the first person to suggest it was irresponsible of me to run articles by Debra. So why do I keep doing it?
Because I know her. I know that beneath a sometimes seemingly disdainful exterior is a soulful, caring human being who works very hard to be the best mother she can be. Because I know she struggles, as all working mothers do, to honor her professional calling while meeting the needs of her family. Because I believe that she purposely takes extreme viewpoints to force people to think. Because I see, in our society, that polarization is often a necessary catalyst to clarity. And because we created Raising Arizona Kids to be a place for sharing ideas. All kinds of ideas.
But there’s another reason — a far more selfish one, I guess — that I keep Debra in my life and in my work: She inspires me.
Debra is creatively courageous — something I am striving to be. True creativity is something you can’t experience without taking personal risks. Without putting yourself out there. Without knowing that criticism and condemnation is a possible outcome.
I met Debra for coffee last week and told her, with some trepidation, that I am trying to write a book about my experience in Ethiopia. I told her how scary it was to confront a project of that magnitude, how worried I was that I am not up to the task.
“Oh, you have to do it!” she said. She told me how she ended up on talk radio in L.A. It was something she really wanted to do but the prospect of making it happen scared her to death. So she moved away from her sheltered, midwestern roots and hit the pavement in search of work in L.A.
It wasn’t easy. But you know what? It worked. She achieved her goal. And it taught her something important. “You have to do the thing you’re most afraid of,” she told me. “You have to do it.”